Hell On Wheels – “Bread and Circuses”Posted: December 4, 2011
The longer I watch, the more I’m convinced that once all is said and done, Doc Durant is going to come out the hero of this grand drama we call Hell On Wheels.
I mean, it couldn’t possibly be Bohannon, could it? He doesn’t seem to do much more than look at everyone around him from under that big, Cro-Magnon brow of his with mild contempt, like he can’t believe they’re occupying the same space. At times, when his purpose is to advance the episode’s plot in some way, he possesses an uncanny ability to get from point A to B without having to do any actual work. In tonight’s episode, when Elam and other former slaves decide to walk off the job until they’re paid (which they know isn’t coming for a while becaaause… Bohannon told them) Bohannon knows what’s going on almost before their shovels and pick-axes have hit the ground. “Hey! It ain’t quittin’ time!” he yells, almost falling off his horse he can’t get over there fast enough. Who said anyone was quitting? Maybe Elam needs a drink of water. Maybe he’s got to take a piss. Maybe he’s happened upon a chest of 15th century Spanish gold bullion and he’s just looking for someone to share the moment with. Sure, it turns out Elam was quitting. But Bohannon didn’t know that.
Anyway, Elam says he’s not working a minute longer until he gets paid. He USED to work for free, but not anymore. See, he used to be a slave. I’m not sure if you knew that. So Bohannon tells him that the last thing he needs today is a slave uprising**, which Elam appreciates none too much. So one tells the other to get back to work, the other says make him, and it isn’t long before they’ve both got their dicks out, swinging them around, measuring them, stuff like that. Of course, Durant can’t allow this sort of behavior, and after stopping Bohannon and Elam from groping each other’s private parts (that’s not a joke, go watch the episode) and reassuring the men that their money is on the way, he proposes a boxing match between the two men, which he believes will help air grievances, real or imagined, and be good for the general disposition of his men. But really, it’ll be a way for everyone to forget the fact that they’re not being paid, and that their money might not be coming at all.
(**There’s been a lot of talk about Bohannon’s supposed progressivism; being a man who owned slaves but set them free a year before the Civil War and kept them on at wages. But when he says things like this, you get the idea that maybe Bohannon’s personal philosophy changes to fit whatever the writers need that week.)
And once it’s on, it’s on like Rae Dawn Chong. No one cares about the money anymore. You can practically hear the camp’s chants of, “Monorail! Monorail! MONORAIL!” And with their bloodlust sated, Durant is able to turn his attention to other important matters, like wooing Lily Bell, and trying to divine whether or not she knows anything about Robert’s maps. And the way he does this is kind of interesting. At this point it’s obvious that one of Durant’s obsessions is how history will remember him. He believes, and tells Lily as much, that without Robert’s maps, he’ll only be remembered for failing to complete the railroad. Then, he appeals to Lily’s own vanity and concern for Robert’s memory. “Unfortunately,” he says, “Robert will probably not be remembered at all.” Is this a tactic that’s likely to work with her? At first I would have said no. Lily seems like a woman who’s got a pretty good head on her shoulders and doesn’t busy herself with such petty concerns. But in the end she gives up the maps. Why? If she was just going to give them over, what was her reason for holding out on Durant this long? Are characters on this show supposed to have consistent motivations for the things they do? I’m guessing no.
It may come as not so big a surprise that the least interesting side of tonight’s episode is the boxing match which it’s centered around. Bohannon and Elam go at it. It looks like Bohannon’s going to win. Then it looks like Elam’s going to win. Then one of Elam’s coaches (sure) gets in his head with all this crazy talk about not wanting to go too hard on Bohannon because Elam’s half white himself, but he needs to think about his mom who was raped, and you know, get angry, get his head back in the game. The whole thing would have been much easier to stomach if Elam didn’t look like he wanted to murder everyone he came into contact with up to this point. Anyway, then it’s over. At this point, we’ve seen so many of these kinds of stories in which the favorite and the underdog win that it’s a little hard to either one not to feel a little contrived. But in this case, once we saw money being exchanged between one of the Irish brothers (Scottish? Does anyone remember what these guys’ names are?) and Elam’s friends, we knew how the entire thing was going to go down. And it turns out that, when one brother tells the other — who’s just so incensed that he would deign to hurt their BEST friend Mr. Bohannon — “Money is my friend,” or something like that, that one moment rings truer than almost any other in the entire episode. These people are living on the frontier, and when things get tough they’re going to look out for themselves. Now they can get out of hock to the Swede, who as it turns out is a pretty big douche. And no offense to Mr. Bohannon, but what the hell has he ever done for them? Really, how could Brother #1 really think he’s their best friend? Makes no sense. Maybe it doesn’t need to.
Anyway, everything turns up aces in the end. Durant gets his maps. Elam gets to hold his head just a little bit higher. Bohannon looks appropriately humbled, which is a good thing. Although I guess it’s entirely possible he’s just sore or a little hungover and will be back to his smug self by lunchtime. But for a few hours at least he’s forced to live down here with us mere mortals. And when Elam comes in to get his pay — which Durant has blackmailed the bank into sending — he doesn’t gloat or act like a douche about it. So maybe it’ll help the two work together in the future. Who am I kidding. I’ll bet they’ll still be pissed about all sorts of stuff.
But we’re not done yet! Other stuff happened, too! Apparently the Indians aren’t taking the threat of war with the white man seriously enough, so Reverend Cole and Joseph Black Moon take it upon themselves to head out, meet with them and let them know that shit goin’ down. But not before Cole’s daughter turns up, who he obviously doesn’t have a very good relationship with. Before heading out with Joseph, he tells her to stay in his tent, unless it’s on fire, then she can leave. Which I suppose is the bare minimum you could tell the child you’re on slightly awkward footing with. Anyway, as the episode closes, we see that maybe the Indians are taking war with the Union Army a little more seriously than they let on, when they come and cut down one of their own from some weird vision quest human slingshot thing (I guess American exceptionalism took care of all that weird bullshit). The Indian cut down says that he had a vision of a great beast made of steel, whose breathed smoke and shook the ground. He said that he killed it. Spoiler alert. The beast is a train. Second spoiler alert. He doesn’t kill it.